India seeks to counter China sway in Maldives with bridge project

India on Thursday pledged $500 million to build bridges and causeways in the Maldives, as New Delhi seeks to counter growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives borrowed billions of dollars from Beijing and hired Chinese firms for infrastructure projects under previous President Abdulla Yameen.

This stoked concerns in India and the West that China was saddling countries in Asia and beyond with unsustainable debts while expanding its sphere of influence.

Under the new Maldives government, India has sought to regain influence in the archipelago nation of 340,000 people and 1,192 islands located on major East-West shipping lanes.

The new investment announced takes India’s total pledged outlay to over $2 billion since President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih came to power, India’s foreign ministry said.

Maldives Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid said the new money was part of a financial package to build bridges and causeways linking the capital Male to three neighboring islets.

“Once completed, the project will be the single largest infrastructure project in the Maldives,” Shahid said in a statement.

In total, they will also be more than three times longer than the $200-million “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” completed under Yameen with Chinese loans which has since been re-named.

It was not clear how long the new project would take.

Shahid also said his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in their talks Thursday had pledged $250 million to meet urgent needs and support efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The virus has infected over 5,300 people and claimed 21 lives in the Maldives, where its crucial tourism industry took a battering.

“There has been a reset in our relations,” an Indian diplomat said after the bilateral talks via video conference.

“In the last one-and-a-half years, President Solih and his government have acted on its ‘India First’ policy in right earnest. In line with its ‘Neighborhood First’ policy, India has worked proactively to deepen its ties with the Maldives.”

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